14: The Open Door
"Captain, wake up." Anna sighed in her sleep, turned over. Someone shook her. "Wake up, curse you. This is important!"
"Ungh," Anna groaned. "Elsa?"
"You wish," said a deeper, more authoritative voice. It was still female but it wasn't that of the queen. It wasn't a voice she'd heard much recently. "Get up, Captain. This pajama party is over as of right now."
Anna opened her eyes and found the Queen's Captain of the Guard leaning over her, still dressed in her gleaming black and green armored uniform. "Captain Calhoun? What's going on?"
"I'm kidnapping you, what does it look like?" It didn't look like a kidnapping. Calhoun had both her service pistol and that strange curved knife with her, but neither was in her hand. Anna looked around and saw Claire standing behind Calhoun holding one of her service uniforms. Claire looked calm. "I have strict orders to keep this as quiet as possible. The only people who know are you, me, and your steward, and I'm told she can be trusted."
"By who?" Anna said. "Who ordered you?"
"Your friend. Olaf."
"Olaf!" Streaks of pain shot through Anna's back as she tried to sit up in bed. "Ow!"
"Careful, Captain. You're not entirely a whole woman."
"Whole enough!" Anna snapped. She sighed. "You're right. What is going on?"
"All I know is, your friend is right now with my queen and he's worried. Really worried. About her. And about you. He called me on her private line, which tells me he knows much more about how to work the controls than I expected. He's one dangerous creature, Captain DuVar."
"It's kept us both alive."
"That's why I have to respect him. And why I have to trust him. He seems to be the only person who's had any regular contact with her in two and a half months."
Anna looked away, hiding the anguish on her face. Olaf should have been here, with her, while she recovered from surgery. What was he doing with Elsa? Why did Anna dream of her every night, and why did she seem to be a part now of every thought she had of him? She hoped he was happy and safe. She would give anything to ensure he was. But Calhoun had said he was worried. "He called you?"
"Yes. I called your steward and she interpreted for him. He told us where Elsa was, not that it was actually a mystery, and said that I had to bring you. Just you, only you. I don't know what's going on here, but when someone calls me on that line, I don't have much of a choice, now, do I?"
"Is Elsa... safe?"
"She's alive. She's as safe as she could be, physically, where she is right now. The rest... that's why I'm here."
"Claire," Anna said. "Please help me dress. I have to go."
"Yes, Ma'am. Shall I inform--"
"No," Anna said. "Don't tell anyone. When someone asks, tell them Captain Calhoun and I are out discussing security matters related to the attack."
"Yes, Ma'am." Getting her arm through the left sleeve of her dress blouse caused pains to shoot from her ear to her elbow. Claire tended to her with the utmost delicacy, but once the shirt was over her wrists Anna could hardly notice. She was already trying seeking Olaf within her, trying to find that protected, sweet shell within which were her love and affection, her heart, against which the shell had always deflected the pains of the world. Olaf was the one who had given her the security to risk everything.
"Captain Calhoun, I'm ready."
"Then let's go." Calhoun led her to the back of the Palace, to a part of the building she'd never visited. The walls were heavier, made of concrete and iron, and most of them painted military grey. Her heart was still too small in her chest, and she had to pause from time to time for breath. They exited through a steel door and onto a landing pad. The vehicle in front of them was a boxy, wingless rounded rectangle with a lowered nose for the cockpit and a raised tail for a ramp. "An aerodyne? You still use them?"
"You might come from a place where you get to ignore the laws of physics, Captain, but until recently we didn't have those kinds of luxuries here. We use our fusion reactors to beat the air into submission," Calhoun said with the growl of an amused she-wolf. "Come on."
The cockpit, at least, was familiar, although without practicing the power curves on those turbines Anna would never have dared to try to fly it herself. Calhoun gestured to a headset, which Anna gratefully put on, recognizing the strange auditory pressure of noise-canceling algorithms. Calhoun ran through a simple checklist of settings and interactions. The engines roared and shoved the aerodyne up into the sky on four tall pillars of turbine-powered violence. Calhoun rotated the turbines back until they were rocketing through the sky at almost the speed of sound. Anna keyed her mic. "Can you tell me where we're going now, Captain?"
"The Winter Palace."
"The Winter Palace," Anna repeated softly.
"It's where the royal family goes to be away from everyone else. There's nothing for a hundred kilometers in every direction, and the royal guard makes sure it stays that way. We've known she was there, naturally. It's our job to take care of her. Problem is, I'm no longer sure she can take care of herself. Your friend seems to think you can."
Anna smiled. "Thank you."
"For not referring to him as a pet."
"Nobody on Arendelle is ever going to make that mistake, Captain. Not after seeing what he did to the enemy."
"You'd be surprised," Anna said. "People are good at forgetting."
Calhoun kept her hands on the controls even after turning on the autopilot. She was quiet for a while. Anna watched her, trying to understand the burning anger in her eyes. Finally, Calhoun turned back to Anna sand said, "Captain, do you know who shot you?"
"I was told a domestic terrorist group was responsible for the attack."
"'Terrorist group.'" She snorted. "They were part of the Eight Day Queen, a tiny reactionary cell that believes the family of Anton the Great has been murdered and replaced with a weak-willed duplicate, that The Keys are in the hand of someone illegitimate." She snorted. "They think Kai-- Kai, of all people, he loves her more than his own life-- replaced her with an actress duplicate, and we're all in on the conspiracy." Calhoun never raised her voice, but the lines of tension in her body radiated a growling, terrifying fury.
The console beeped. Calhoun paused to scan the terrain through the window, looked down at her navigation screen, then nodded. "We're about to land, Captain. Before we do, I need to ask you a question, and I need a straight answer. My Queen's been hurt enough. Do you intend to add to Elsa's hurt in any way?"
Anna turned to her, breath caught in her throat for a moment. "No! Of course not. Why would you even think so?"
"Elsa is a young woman, and she was a younger woman when her parents were killed. No ruler is loved by everyone, and the House of Anton has a long and dark history. She's survived more than one assassination attempt, and now the Eight Day Queen scum has actually tried something this brazen. You were nearly killed, and that seems to have upset her more than I would think it warrants, no offense, and then there's this weird business with Olaf." Calhoun's hands tightened on the controls briefly. "Although he was very effective in taking down that wave of fools. We're still tracking down all the compromises they used to get through, so I'm glad he's with her." Calhoun turned to Anna, her eyes so intense they seemed to barely move. "Don't you hurt her. Ever. Understood?"
Anna wanted to sink into her seat at Calhoun's ferocity and her earnestness. "I promise with all my heart-- my Arendellian heart, now that I think about it-- that hurting Elsa is the last thing I would want."
"The heart is a lonely hunter with that can't aim and wears no safety vest," Calhoun said.
"Nevermind," Calhoun said, turning her attention back to the controls. "We're landing."
"Calhoun?" Calhoun grunted. Anna said, "No offense taken. I understand."
The snow around the Winter Palace absorbed sound to make the world stand still. As Anna and Calhoun walked away from the landing pad only a few metallic pings and creaks from the cooling aerodyne told Anna she'd removed the noise-cancelling headphones. The Palace itself was a small building, as Palaces go, a two-storey affair painted blue-white to match its surroundings, but the soaring decorative spires at each corner, with flags at each apex, echoed the fairy-tale appearance of the Palace at Chantel. A short, narrow bridge crossed a deep chasm between the landing field and the palace proper, and like the palace it was painted crystalline blue-white to look like the icy ground.
Wordlessly, Calhoun led Anna across a snow-dusted bridge and up to a side door, then ushered her inside to the receiving room. Another of those crystalline chandeliers Anna had started to recognize dimly lit the middle of the room. The interior was of the same light woods as the Palace at the Capital, but none of the usual banners and flags hung around the edges. They climbed one set of curving stairs to the second floor, and down a hallway with windows set on one side and doors on the other. Calhoun stopped in front of a door, then looked back at Anna. "They're in there, Captain. Olaf says it should be only you." She hesitated, put one hand on Anna's shoulder. "Be good to them."
Anna slowly raised her gaze to meet Calhoun's. "I will. I promise."
"Okay, then." Calhoun turned and walked away, disappearing around the corner.
Anna hesitated. Now that she was this close, the spark in her soul where Olaf lived and played seemed to be there, quiet and still but assured and healthy. "C'mon, Anna," she breathed quietly. "You know how to knock."
She knocked. There was no answer. She knocked again. "Elsa? Please, I know you're in there. With Olaf? Captain Calhoun brought me. We're all wondering where you've been."
There was silence from the other side. Anna knocked again. She raised her voice. "I'm not leaving until you open this door."
The lights flickered in the hallway. Anna heard something groan mechanically. The lights went out, and the windows opened, as if ghostly hands had pushed them aside, letting the frigid air from outside invade the hallway. "Elsa, whatever you're doing, you're scaring me! Open this door. Please. I just want to talk to Olaf. I just... I just want to see you."
The windows silently closed. The lights guttered and turned bright. The floor creaked somewhere on the other side of the door, the latch thunked mechanically. The door opened.
It wasn't Elsa. It was Olaf, stretched to his maximal height to reach the doorknob and turn it. He'd known how to do that since she was a teenager. "Olaf?"
Olaf padded out on all six limbs. His eyes were read and puffy, his fur ragged and unkempt. He moved slowly. "Olaf!" She reached out, and he swarmed up her clothes, but without his usual grace. "Oh, Olaf! I love you, Olaf." She gasped, even as Olaf spoke a soft, amused "bleek" into her hair.
The word. She had banished it from her tongue. Her father had said she should do so, that she should accept her role, born to be one of the sinews of the kingdom. She had to put aside the word, the terrifying word that she had eventually pressed down because she no longer trusted it not to betray her.
But Olaf couldn't betray her.
Olaf tapped her on the shoulder, to say that he had to tell her something. She held out her arm to get a good look at him, sobbing and laughing through her tears, and he nodded and looked at her. And she stared, and stared...
And she didn't feel him.
"Olaf?" she said, her new heart almost stopping in terror. She reached forward, nervously, leaned against the door. Inside looked like a sitting room. She found a chair, sat down. Her body was trembling. She recognized the symptoms of adrenaline and other fight-or-flight hormones; at Saganami Island her mentors had trained her to tamp these, direct them, use them to focus her energies on the enemy, to fight more effectively. There was nothing here to fight, just her beloved friend, her anchor, her lifeline.
Olaf reached up and touched her cheek, his eyes narrowed in concentration, and Anna felt something. But it wasn't the same. He wasn't the same. Olaf wrapped his arms around her neck, chittered in her ear softly, then fell away from her, landing on the floor with a thump. "I'm sorry," he signed.
"No," Anna said softly. "How?"
"I don't know," he signed.
"We'll make it right. We will. We'll make it okay. I know we can, I'm sure we can. We have to. Where's Elsa?"
Olaf pointed toward an inner door. Anna rose, strode to it, knocked hard. There was no answer. She tried the door. It was locked. "Elsa, you have to come out of there." There was no response. "Please, open the door. You can't let this go without... without..." Still silence. "Please, Elsa. Please." She put her hand on the door, felt her knees buckle. She was slipping downward, collapsing to the floor, crying. "Elsa, I'm not leaving here."
The lights went low. She heard the windows bang open again, and doors flew open of their own volition. "You can try to frighten me, Elsa. I don't care! I don't know what this is, but I'm not leaving!" The winter chill invaded the room. The temperature dropped. "I'm also not afraid of the cold. In case you missed it, I'm from Iron Fjord, which is as cold as a penguin's third nipple on Christmas Eve! God, I'm terrible with metaphors. What I mean is, it's one of the coldest places in all of Manticore. I love summer, but I'm not going to be driven away by this little bit of snow!"
"You have to go!" It wasn't Elsa's voice. It was a deep, artificial voice that growled from every corner of the room.
"No, I won't! In case you missed something, Your Majesty, I'm a starship captain, and I gained my captaincy in the middle of a war. People have been shooting at me for the last decade. Threats don't frighten me. Not even backed up with silly special effects! Especially not from you!" She leaned against the door, its wood cool against her cheek. In a lower voice she pleaded. "Please, Elsa, talk to me. I thought we were... were making progress."
The silence grew. The temperature fell, but Anna didn't care. Olaf stood next to her, his quiet physical presence still reassuring for all the terror and loneliness she felt now that she no longer felt him within her heart. Was that it, her new heart? She wanted to talk to him, but those words wouldn't come out. Anna could feel her body wanting to rest, to stop, to let this cold take her back to being frozen. Very few people sleep well in a hospital bed, and the toll of healing, flying, and now this wore her down.
She was jolted awake when the door opened, sending her sprawling against the floor. "Anna?" Olaf had been resting next to her, and he grunted gently and looked up. His eyes were sparkling with forgiveness and regret.
"Elsa. Queen. Sorry." She turned over, pushed herself up to a kneeling position, then levered herself upright. "I was taking a nap."
"Anna, you could freeze to death like that. I can't believe you're still here."
Anna stood, sniffed, rubbed her nose with a finger. "Where would I go? I mean, I... I need you to come back. We have to explain this. Or understand it. Or something. I promised Calhoun I wouldn't come back without you." Anna watched, heartbroken, as Olaf swarmed up Elsa's body and took a place on her shoulder, a familiar place. "No. It can't be. It... Is that... is that what happened?"
Elsa nodded. "It... yes."
Anna felt dizzy. "Can we... can we sit down?"
"Oh! Yes, of course." Anna turned and let Elsa lead her back into the sitting room. Anna took the couch. She though she would need it. Olaf thumped down onto the floor between them.
Elsa said, "When you were shot, he was scared, Anna, so scared. I'm so sorry. If I could undo it all, I would. It really is miraculous, isn't it?"
Anna nodded quietly. "It really is." Tears filled her eyes. "I'm sorry, your highness. I'm so sorry."
Elsa didn't interrupt as she sobbed, her face in her arms. The crying had an infinite well of tears to tap, fear of death, fear of losing Olaf, fear of losing her career all pushing the water down her cheeks. Elsa sat next to her until the crying subsided. After the tears had drained her completely, after her back started to complain from the sobbing, after all that remained was hollow, Anna managed to look up and wipe her eyes. "Sorry."
"You have nothing to apologize for, Captain. You've been brave and resourceful, you've sacrificed more than anyone should have asked of you, and you've shown your willingness to sacrifice everything for your Queen's honor. Arendelle owes you, Captain. It will never forget what it owes you."
Anna sniffed. "Just doing my job."
Elsa shook hear head. "No, you did so much more than that. You have earned everything I could possibly give you. You should take Olaf and... go."
"Maybe. Admiral Becker is going to be furious when he hears about this! But, Elsa, I can't take Olaf from you. You'd both go crazy for each other in less than a month. And... it's your kingdom, Elsa, that needs you now. It needs you. It's your duty to be the guidance your people want."
Elsa shook her head. "I can't go back. People will get hurt. You could get hurt. Again. Worse."
Anna looked up at Elsa, trying to give her the best grin she could. Even on her worst day Elsa could never not be beautiful. Her hair was loose and flowing, a cascade of white that fell around her shoulders. Her eyes were red from lack of sleep. "Elsa, what could be worse than dead, or losing Olaf? I'm used to people using me for target practice. I accepted that every time I went into action, the other side were going to do their damndest to kill me, to kill Olaf, to kill every single member of my crew, to try and make the price too high for Manticore to keep fighting according to some incredibly stupid ideas of honor and valor, and we were going to do the same thing to them. Don't tell me to run away from danger, Elsa. That's the one thing I'll never do. I don't know how." Words piled up in the back of Anna's mind, words about other things that would never scare her away. Words like "Elsa." Words like... She shook her head.
"Anyway, how could this possibly get worse? You disappeared and now your Kingdom has no idea what to do. Prime Minister Dellaroy has told me three times this week that 'without direction from the Queen, the Kingdom is on autopilot. And we can't afford autopilot when we're heading into such unknown territory.'"
Elsa barked a laugh at Anna's mocking tone of her Prime Minister's officious voice. "Elsa, your nobles are revolting, your government is falling apart, there could still be moles infiltrating your planetary network, and your kingdom needs you to sign treaties and make decisions and get yourselves a proper system-wide guard force and prepare to head an interstellar navy. They need you."
"No, Anna, they don't," Elsa said. "They need someone better than me. I should stay here, where I belong, where I can't be hurt and where I can't hurt anyone else. You shouldn't be here."
"Well, why not?"
"Because, Anna, I'm what's wrong with Arendelle." She held up her hands as if she held something in them. "I don't know how to use the power I've been given. I don't know how to use The Keys. The one time I exercised it fully, it was to destroy our commerce with Corona."
"The Vessel was using those satellites to shoot at you! You're lucky they just shot at things in orbit close to the planet. They could have shot at the ground and killed millions!"
"That's just it! It's the only power I have! Everything I do turns to ashes, Anna. Ashes and ice. Everything I've ever done ends up hurting and destroying. Like Tamora. And Brad."
"Tamora's husband. Late husband." Elsa took a deep breath. "They met when she joined the Palace Guard from the Domestic Guard; he'd been my personal bodyguard for years by then. Three weeks after they married, an assassin killled him." Elsa looked away, but there were tears on her cheeks. "It was two months after my coronation."
"Why? Why him?"
"Anna, has anyone told you about the Eight Day Queen?"
"Calhoun told me. They were some crazy terrorist group who thought you weren't the legitimate queen."
"It's worse than that. The night I was coronated, I had a nervous breakdown. Right at the coronation party. My tutors had given me all the lessons and taught me how to work the levers, but... I was terrified. I didn't have the courage. I ran away, to here, and I hid. A week later, Kai coaxed me out. He convinced me that being queen would be... manageable. A then just a few months later a madman calling himself the Eight Day Queen tried to kill me. Brad tackled the man and covered the assassin's body with his own. The man had an explosive. It killed both him and Brad."
"The Eight Day Queen is convinced that no daughter of Anton the Sixth would ever had broken down like I did at that party, shouted hysterically and run away. In their imagination Kai is supposed to be this sinister mastermind who replaced me with a double. You should see the opinion sites on our network where they've documented every freckle I've ever had."
"I'm sorry," Anna said. "But that doesn't change the fact that you are queen, Elsa. Besides," Anna said as she bent down and offered her hands to Olaf, who clambered into them gratefully and took his place on Anna's shoulder. "You and he have to learn to live with each other. And I could never run away from him." She stroked Olaf's back. "Can you tell me how it happened?"
Elsa was silent for a moment. When she spoke, her voice was far away. "When those men attacked and you were injured, Olaf was going crazy. He stood on your body and wouldn't let the medics take care of you, but I had to get him away. I had to let them save you. I grabbed him and he fought me. That's how I got this." She pointed to the fresh, fine white scar on her left cheek just along the jawline. "I don't think he wanted to hurt me, but he didn't want to be taken away from you. I shouted at him that the medics would save you, that you would be okay, that you would live, and I stared into his eyes. He was scared, Anna, so scared. And then suddenly, he was here." Elsa touched her chest over her own heart. Anna's eyes widened in her own familiar, terrified understanding. "Is that... what it feels like?"
"Yes," Anna said, and tears started to form in her eyes again. Anna couldn't even hate them. It wasn't their fault. She'd been dead. In their grief over her they'd found each other. Wasn't that how love was supposed to work? When someone Adopted died the treecat frequently went into catatonic shock, stopped eating, and died as well. That could have been Olaf's fate. Elsa had saved Olaf. Elsa had earned Olaf. Knowing that didn't stop the tears.
Anna felt a tap on her shoulder, and in habit held Olaf far enough away to see his hands. "Flame," Olaf gestured. It was the word he used when he wanted to talk to her, get her attention. "I love you."
"I love you, too, Olaf," she said softly. And the word, that word, the one she'd been holding down in her chest, in her belly, where it never came up and bothered her, was back out in the open. She was still hurt, still reeling. Tears came to her eyes. She took a step back to sit in chair and hid her face to hide her hurt. "I love you too."
Anna heard footsteps coming close, felt Elsa's arms hesitantly wrap around her, felt the woman kneel down to be next to the chair. Elsa choked on a laugh, or a sob, or something in between. "I'm the queen. Nobody ever gets to touch me. I never get to touch anyone."
Anna nodded and fresh sobs wracked her. She buried her face in Elsa's shoulder, felt Olaf climb up the two of them. Anna held onto Elsa, awkwardly at first, but somehow Olaf's presence, his affirmation that they were both worthy of him, made her grip the other woman tightly, holding her, feeling her sobs convulse through her.
"I'm sorry, Anna, I'm so sorry."
"For what?" Anna's voice was little more than a hoarse whisper.
"For being so weak. So awkward. For getting you shot. For taking Olaf from you. For... everything."
Anna pulled away enough to see the other woman's eyes once more. "You're not weak, Elsa. You're... stressed. Scared. And probably angry. People make bad choices under those circumstances." Anna held her. "But we can learn to work with the stress. Manticore taught me. I can teach you. Come here." She moved aside and made room for Elsa on the couch. Above it hung a painting of a bucolic summer picnic. Anna had no doubt it was a masterpiece. "Elsa, Arendelle needs you. They've never needed you more than now. You're the only one with the authority to help them through this terrible season."
"I know," Elsa said. "I wish my father were still alive. He would know what to do. My father died before he could fully teach me how to use The Keys."
"Elsa, what are The Keys?"
Elsa held up her hand. Anna saw the gloves Elsa always seemed to be wearing. "Anton the Great... he knew, that to control Arendelle, he would have to control its networks. So he controls the processor factories. Every processor is built with cryptographic locks. And he needed a very personal and direct way to lock or unlock those processors at will." She looked up at Anna. "So, like the Vessel, I have... cyberwear. In my head. And my hands. The transmitters and cryptographic key systems, The Keys, are here." She pointed to the backs of her hands. "Exposed. So they can be controlled if they have to, but..."
Anna's eyes went down to Elsa's hands. "That's why you wear the gloves."
Elsa nodded. "They're Faraday cages. When I take these off, the whole world changes into something I command, every device is ready to act out my whim, every speaker will say what I want, every plane would fall from the sky. Sometimes I think I'm more like the Vessel than I am like my own subjects. I see and hear so much more, so much you can't. If I wanted, every soletta would turn away from its duchy. Arendelle is only habitable because the solettas reflect extra sunlight down here. Anna, when one of my ancestors had a troublesome duke, all he had to do was turn off the sun." She paused, staring at her hands as if each palm itself was the traitor. "When I wear my gloves, I feel.. human. I don't want them. I don't want this curse. I don't want to feel like a god. I want to be human."
"But you are human," Anna said. "And I want to help you. We can work it out together. We can head down this mountain together, Elsa, you don't have to be afraid."
"I... I know. Thank you, Anna."
They were quiet for a few minutes, their breaths misting in the still frigid air. "We should go," Anna said, hinting gently.
"Yes," Elsa said. "Yes. I think I'm ready now." She took a deep breath, sat up straight, looked around as if only now seeing her own palace. "Two weeks this time. I thought panic attacks were supposed to last only a few hours.
"I don't know. Maybe," Anna said, understanding better Elsa's predicament. "Sometimes, though, just not knowing what to do next is crippling enough. We have our duties. I have mine. You have yours." She turned her attention back to the large, muscular ball of fluff staring up at the two of them. "And you, Snowball, what are we going to do with you?"
Olaf only grinned and cast his gaze between the two of them.
Anna stood and took Elsa's hand. She looked over the beautiful white-haired woman and something down inside her quivered. For the longest time, she'd thought it had just been some flavor of irresponsible desire, the kind of playfulness she'd so enjoyed when she'd been young, a fresh adult, learning all the ways adults could play. But there was more to it now. She should have resented Elsa utterly, but instead she felt admiration, respect, and yearning. And something else, too. There was a world weighing down this woman, and she may have been terrified of the responsibility, but she was about to put it all back onto her shoulders. "Calhoun is waiting for us."
Elsa nodded. They stood face to face, Anna holding Elsa's hand in hers. Elsa's face was less than a handspan away, her eyes so blue and beautiful. Anna hesitated, then turned away. "Let's go." Olaf, to Anna's great pleasure, swarmed up onto her padded shoulder.
They met Calhoun at the door leading to the landing pad. Calhoun rushed to Elsa's side. "You sure did a number on yourself this time, My Queen."
Elsa smirked. "Is Kai with you, Captain?"
"No, My Queen."
"Good. I don't want him to see me like this." She stood up and brushed the hair out of her face. Anna's heart gave one massive thud and a warmth pooled somewhere south of there. She turned away, but she could feel Olaf snickering in her ear.
"Then let's get you back to Chantel and call your maids and get you prettied right up, Your Majesty. If you would both come this way?"